The most intangible difference between two teams with similar talent this weekend was the Trojans’ ability to close out competitive games while maintaining their relaxed demeanor.
The No. 1 USC men’s volleyball team left no questions unanswered this weekend as to which team sits atop the NCAA volleyball pyramid, eking out two five set victories over No. 2 BYU, 25-21, 17-25, 25-17, 21-25, 15-12 and 25-18, 23-25, 25-16, 22-25, 15-10.
“We showed a lot of heart these past two matches,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson. “These were big-time matches. Every time we punched them, they punched us back; we traded sets back and forth both nights.”
An unsung role player for most of the season, junior middle blocker Steven Shandrick managed to emerge as All-American senior opposite Murphy Troy’s primary sidekick Friday night, registering 10 kills at a blistering .667 clip with a healthy five blocks. For his part, Murphy Troy hit 22 kills at .526.
Saturday night, Shandrick was relatively quiet until the Trojans were down 5-2 in the fifth set. Then, Shandrick nearly single-handedly won three consecutive points, registering a “roof” block, kill and ace in succession. Once the set was tied, the Trojans never looked back.
“That was a great team, and it really speaks volumes about our ability to execute that we won two nights in a row,” Shandrick said. “They were a challenge to block. We’re very similar teams. We both like to run quick offenses. I want to go best-of-five.”
A wrinkle to the Cougars’ game plan on Saturday night was their implementation of a different setter, junior Joe Kauliakamoa, against whom the Trojans had no experience. Kauliakamoa exhibited a fair amount of guile throughout the match, not only amassing 45 assists, but also hitting four quick kills which caught the Trojan defense off-guard.
“We settled down and adjusted to [Kauliakamoa] in the third set,” Ferguson said. “He was a lot tougher to read, but our blockers finally focused a little bit better and were able to limit him more as the match went on.”
Although Ciarelli’s hitting this weekend was not up to his usual standards, Ferguson quickly singled out Ciarelli’s sure-handedness on defense as crucial to the Trojans’ success.
Ciarelli was pitted against BYU junior opposite Rob Stowell both nights and limited the prolific scorer to a combined 37 kills on 88 combined attempts. Stowell’s hitting percentage did not reach .300 on either night.
“[BYU is] is just a good team all around,” Ciarelli said. “They have two middles and two outsiders who can put the ball away. When they’re in system, they’re really tough to beat.”
The Trojans continue their homestand against UC San Diego on Friday at 7 p.m.